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House throws a ‘Hail Mary,’ critics say, in keeping vouchers alive

Friday, March 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A House push to expand the state’s controversial, private-school voucher program was repackaged Friday in an effort to win over a resistant state Senate in the session’s closing weeks.

The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee overhauled the voucher proposal and included in it changes that broaden the use of the state’s McKay Scholarship program for children with disabilities.

For the House and Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has promised a “massive expansion” of school choice this year, it’s a clear attempt to keep the expansion alive.

The McKay Scholarship changes are eagerly sought by Senate leaders and combining the two efforts is a tactical move by the House.

Still, while the House dropped its initial plan to allow sales tax dollars to flow to the voucher program for the first time, the new version does not add any school testing requirements. In withdrawing its Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program legislation last week, the Senate said it was because it failed to require student assessments similar to those in public schools.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who spearheaded the retooled legislation Friday, said the program has never demanded private school students to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and would not require them to take FCAT’s successor in the fall.

“You have voted for this program in the past,” Fresen told committee members opposing the legislation. “Nothing in this bill changes the level of accountability.”

But Rep. Karen Castor-Dentel, D-Orlando, said the proposal is a “massive expansion of private school vouchers.”

“We are giving up on our legislative responsibility to ensure that our children are learning,” she added, calling the rewrite a political “Hail Mary” for the troubled expansion effort.

The measure was approved Friday in a partyline vote, with Democrats opposed.

Joanne McCall, a vice-president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, also condemned the tactical move by the House.

“I have to say as a teacher who taught disabled students daily, that this attempt to salvage expansion of the voucher program by attaching it to this bill is disingenuous to the public and to those of us who have dedicated our careers to working with students with disabilities,” McCall said.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is authorized to spend as much as $286 million this year to send 59,674 mostly black and Hispanic low-income students to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based.

The program gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance the private school scholarships. The initial House bill would have bolstered that by allowing companies to dedicate sales-tax dollars to scholarships.

The program’s funding has steadily climbed, with $357.8 million already the cap for scholarships next year. But the measure approved Friday increases that to  $903.8 million by 2018. The number of scholarships available will almost double.

Family income requirements also would be eased,  allowing more working-class families to qualify for the program, supporters said.

Meanwhile, the legislation continues to allow that 3 percent of the annual cap go toward administrative costs, a fee that allows Step Up for Students, a politically-connected Tampa-based nonprofit, to collect $8.6 million this year. When the program reaches its full capacity, Step Up could be collecting $26.2 million for expenses.


Bush-era school voucher plan poised for expansion in House

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A private school voucher program launched under former Gov. Jeb Bush could be dramatically expanded under legislation getting its first review today in a House subcommittee — and facing stiff opposition from Palm Beach and other school districts.

A priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program looms as a sharp political dividing point this election year. Along with another proposal aimed at beefing-up the charter school industry, the push is part of what Weatherford has promised to be a “massive” expansion of school choice options.

The program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to a private, non-profit group, which then passes the money to low-income parents for private school tuition.

Under legislation sponsored by Weatherford in 2010, the program’s funding was allowed to grow annually and will reach $357.8 million in scholarship money next year.

Legislation going before the House Finance and Taxation subcommittee today would allow sales tax dollars — the state’s prime source of revenue — to be directed into the program by corporations and expand the eligibility pool of students, setting the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018.

Meanwhile, the Step Up for Students, private non-profit which oversees the program, would see its 3 percent take for administrative costs swell from its current $8.6 million this year to $26.2 million when the scholarship program fills out.

While almost 60,000 students received scholarships this year, almost 94,000 applications were begun by families, who  Step up for Students says earn on average about $25,000 annually.

Step Up for Students Chairman John Kirtley is close to Weatherford and has called him the “poster child” for school choice, with the speaker having been home-schooled until his first year of high school.

Kirtley also is an adept political player on the Republican side. He chairs the Florida Federation for Children, a political committee that spent almost $1.5 million in the 2012 election season.

That political committee has collected contributions from Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale-based company that operates dozens of charter schools across Florida, including Renaissance Charter School in West Palm Beach.

School choice politics could hurt Scott’s reach out on public schools

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

After slashing $1.3 billion from schools his first year as governor, Rick Scott has struggled to convince public school advocates that he is on their side by pouring money into classrooms and teacher raises during subsequent years of his term.

Now, as he faces a brutal reelection contest, Scott’s fellow Republican leaders may be reopening old wounds, floating a new proposal to expand a school voucher program that has long antagonized Florida’s biggest teachers’ union and many school boards.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said last week he wants a “massive expansion” of school choice efforts this year, including beefing up the scholarship program that redirects hundreds of millions of potential tax dollars from public budgets into private schools.

The move is giving Democrats and their allies more campaign talking points as they strive to portray Scott and his party as indifferent to public schools and eager to shift tax dollars into private hands.

“We’re definitely concerned about an expansion of this corporate voucher program,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. “The schools that receive state money through this program aren’t accountable.”

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program will spend as much as $286 million this year to send 59,674 low-income students, mostly black or Hispanic, to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based. The program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for donations they make to a private, non-profit group, which then passes the money to low-income parents for private school tuition.

Under legislation sponsored by Weatherford in 2010, the program’s funding was allowed to grow annually and will reach $357.8 million in scholarship money next year.

But Weatherford doesn’t think that’s enough.

He was joined last week by Senate President Don Gaetz, D-Niceville, in saying that broadening the program will be a priority when the Legislature convenes March 4.

Weatherford offered no specifics. But program supporters say almost 35,000 more students may be interested in drawing scholarships, which could demand an additional $150 million for the program.

“We’re going to do a massive expansion of choice for families,” Weatherford said.

Full story here:

Scott praises growing list of school districts approving teacher raises

Monday, December 16th, 2013 by John Kennedy

With Palm Beach County poised this week to join a growing list of school districts approving teacher pay raises, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday praised those getting on board with the $480 million plan he pushed through last spring’s Legislature.

Fifty-two of Florida’s 67 school districts have approved some form of increase. Many of the salary bumps, though, are falling short of what Scott and lawmakers expected to range from $2,500 each for teachers rated “effective” to $3,500 for those who earned “highly effective” grades.

Palm Beach’s raises look likely to land around $1,000 for first-year teachers to $2,000 for the highest-paid educators. But after a slow rollout of the raises — caused mostly by protracted local negotiations — Scott appeared happy that some level of increase is being achieved.

“Working with the Legislature, we were proud to recognize the achievements of Florida students by awarding teachers for their work,” Scott said. “We will continue to find ways to support Florida’s teachers, who are the backbone of our entire education system.”


Scott’s much touted teacher pay raises, slow to arrive

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Teachers in most counties are still awaiting pay raises approved earlier this year.

Teachers across most Florida counties, including Palm Beach, are still awaiting pay raises pushed through Legislature last spring by Gov. Rick Scott, a House budget committee was told Wednesday.

Deputy Education Commissioner Linda Champion said that only 13 of the state’s 67 counties had approved pay raises that lawmakers said were to range from $2,500 each for teachers rated “effective” and as much as $3,500 for those who earned “highly effective” grades.

In 53 counties, negotiations between school boards and teachers unions are still ongoing, while Orange County has been declared at a collective bargaining impasse.

Lawmakers acknowledged that the pay hikes were taking longer to appear than they anticipated. But Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, also said she was “disappointed” that four of the counties had issued across-the-board boosts, apparently disregarding the Legislature’s demand that they awards be based on merit.

“I’m troubled that we have superintendents and school boards that ignored that directive,” Adkins said.

In Palm Beach County, negotiations with the Classroom Teachers Associations are still underway. The CTA this week made a counter-offer involving salary schedules that could mean more money for teachers on top of $2,000 pay hikes already put forth by the school board.

Scott in 2011 signed into law legislation ending teacher tenure and introducing a merit-pay plan based in large part how students perform on standardized tests. The performance standard is to go into effect next year, a delay that may be contributing to the decision in some counties not to rely completely on merit in handing out raises.

Overall, the 13 counties where pay hikes have been distributed are mostly small, with many rural. Average pay raises for teachers have ranged between $1,500 and $2,900, representing a 2.3 percent to 6.8 percent increase, DOE reported. Administrators have drawn between $450 and $2,000 boosts in the 11 counties where they were included; non-instructional staff have collected another $80 to $1,100 in four counties where they were made part of the boost.

Scott offers math lesson to teachers of the year

Thursday, June 27th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Tony Bennett led a discussion Thursday with ‘teachers of the year’ from around the state, with the Republican governor giving them a lesson in the math of state government.

Scott recalled how he faced deep budget shortfalls his first two years in office, forcing a sharp spending reduction on education in 2011. But as the economy has begun picking up, the past two years he has recommended an increase of more than $2 billion for schools.

Scott quickly pivoted his remarks back to a familiar theme.

“If we can get more employment, we get more people to move here, we’ll have more dollars,” Scott told more than three-dozen teachers gathered at the Capitol. “We do that, we’re going to have more money. And my focus will be on education.”

Much of the exchange between teachers and the state leaders centered on Florida’s move away from FCAT testing toward standards based on a common core curriculum,  a new “pathways” law expanding students’ pursuit of job-focused, industrial certifications, and the linking of teacher salaries to student performance.

The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has sued over a 2011 law that bases half of most teachers’ performance evaluations on student performance. Legislation signed into law this spring by Scott was designed to ease some concerns by requiring that teachers be evaluated only by the work of students they actually instruct.

But the issue remains on the minds of many of those attending Thursday’s session, teachers said.

Maria Aparacio, a physics teacher at West Boca Raton High School who has taught 29 years in Palm Beach County said the teacher evaluation process “is a big worry.”

But she added that Scott and the Legislature’s including $480 million for teacher pay raises in coming months has eased some concerns.

Under the plan, teachers graded “effective” would be eligible for a $2,500 pay raise. Those rated “highly effective” would be eligible for $3,500.

“The pay raises mean a lot,” Aparacio said.




With a teacher raise tour, Scott seeks payoff

Monday, May 13th, 2013 by John Kennedy

At five schools in as many Florida counties, Gov. Rick Scott stumped the state last week praising teachers and the $2,500 raises he pushed lawmakers to include for them in the $74.5 billion budget.

But strategists say it’s far less certain whether the Republican governor will be able to cash in politically on the raises in his re-election bid next year.

Despite making teacher pay his top priority of the legislative session, Scott, like every Republican governor before him, appears unlikely to break the Democratic Party’s powerful bond with the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“Nobody knows what he’s thinking with this strategy,” said FEA President Andy Ford. “It’s clearly all about 2014 and the governor’s race. Teachers welcome the raises. But that doesn’t buy forgiveness.”

Scott may be seeking to make some strides with women, middle-aged voters and independents. But his strategy isn’t moving the needle with teachers — even some self-identified Republicans.

The full story:

Florida GOP slaps Pafford for budget vote

Monday, May 6th, 2013 by John Kennedy

With Gov. Rick Scott stopping at a Palm Beach County school Monday to tout teacher pay raises, the Florida Republican Party launched an internet strike on Democratic Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, one of 11 lawmakers voting against the state’s proposed $74.5 billion budget.

‘Why Did Pafford vote against Governor’s budget that’s a win for public schools,’ was one of the headlines in a Florida GOP release that interlaced newspaper stories on the teacher pay raise with stinging words for Pafford.

Pafford was accused of being part of a ‘(Dis) appreciation week for teachers.’

“They apparently didn’t listen to my debate,” Pafford said Monday of the GOP criticism.

Pafford said he voted ‘no’ on the budget because it failed to adequately serve poor Floridians, the elderly and disabled. Mostly, he centered his opposition on the Legislature’s failure to expand health insurance to low-income residents, a battle that consumed much of the session and ended in a stalemate between the House and Senate.

“The budget is not plugged into the reality that exists outside this chamber,” Pafford said Friday on the House floor.

The GOP blast on Pafford came shortly after Scott toured Wynnebrook Elementary School in West Palm Beach, among a handful of school stops the governor plans to make this week. The budget includes $480 million that could give teachers a $2,500 pay raises by next June.



Scott and FEA join to praise teacher pay plan

Sunday, April 28th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott joined with the state’s largest teachers’ union late Sunday to endorse the $480 million included in the state budget for pay raises — saying it will guarantee at least $2,000 hikes for teachers around the state.

The House and Senate included the same $480 million Scott had sought. But while the governor proposed $2,500 across-the-board pay raises, legislative leaders insisted the money be based on merit.

Scott and Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said the structure of the package set to be voted on Friday by the Legislature means every teachers will get at least $2,000, but that some could pull in as much as $3,500 next year. Counties will have to develop performance measures to determine the final raises through collective bargaining.

Scott said the proposal builds “on our work to implement performance pay, while also allowing school districts the flexibility to use the $480 million in new funding to give every Florida teacher a pay raise. Our teachers are some of the best in the nation
and they deserve to be rewarded for their great work.”

Ford said, ““Through the collective bargaining process, FEA remains committed to working with local school districts to develop fair, valid, reliable and transparent processes to reward the success of Florida’s teaching force. Through bargaining with local
elected school boards, the success of such classroom personnel can be financially recognized in a manner which best meets the needs of local school districts.”



Scott grumbles about his agenda adrift; hints at vetoes

Thursday, April 25th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott grumbled some and hinted Thursday at vetoing some hometown spending sought by top lawmakers if the Legislature fails to act on his legislative proposals.

Scott’s biggest pitch — drawing Medicaid dollars to expand health care for low-income Floridians — looks doomed in the House. The House also has allowed to languish Scott’s push to eliminate the sales tax for manufacturers buying new equipment.

Meanwhile, House and Senate budget negotiators also have dismissed Scott’s $2,500 across-the-board teacher pay raises. They want to hand out the dollars solely based on merit.

“In the budget, for the first time since 2006, we have a surplus. I want to make sure we spend the money well,” Scott told reporters. “So, I would expect, like I did the last two years….I want to make sure we get a good return on our investment.”

Asked if he has targeted some spending already, Scott said, “There’s a lot of projects in there. I’m going to look at them closely. Legislators, I’m sure will want to come explain some spending. I have my priorities. I want to do the right thing for this state.”

Standoff beween budget negotiators and Scott over teacher raises

Monday, April 22nd, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a sweeping education bill Monday, even as the focus on Florida schools is being largely overtaken by a battle between the governor and legislative leaders over teacher pay.

Flanked by university presidents, lawmakers and other education leaders, Scott signed SB 1076, which would overhaul high school and higher education.

The legislation  creates two designations for high school degrees, each with different requirements. One is aimed at encouraging students to work toward industry certification.

The bill would also set out standards for universities to be recognized as “preeminent universities,” with one of those schools positioned to run an online institute to encourage internet-based education, a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Weatherford called the legislation “transformational.” Scott also praised the measure for helping connect students to the state’s evolving economy.

“We should all be proud of how this will help children get jobs when they finish their education,” Scott said.

But House and Senate budget negotiators have darkened one of Scott’s top priorities: $2,500 pay raises for teachers. While the proposed budget being hammered on now settles on the $480 million Scott needs to achieve that goal, lawmakers want to broaden the pool of potential recipients and tie the raises to merit.

Including guidance counselors, librarians and other non-teachers in the eligible pool would potentially shrink the amount of individual raises.

Since there isn’t a plan in place to enact merit-pay raises, that also could delay getting the money into teachers’ hands, critics said.

“Despite the fact that teachers in Florida make $10,000 less than the national average, much-needed pay raises for next year will be based on a system that doesn’t make a lick of sense,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“Pay raises for other state workers like law-enforcement officers and firefighters aren’t tied to a ridiculous evaluation system,” Ford concluded.

Senate Education budget chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said negotiators are still refining how the merit raises would be distributed. But he said it would not be difficult for the state and school boards to devise a system.

“I don’t think that’s a legitimate concern,” Galvano said.

Scott, though, after signing the education bill into law, said he was not bending on the $2,500 raise.

“I have my priorities, the House and Senate have their priorities,” Scott said. “We have two weeks left in session. We’ll see how well each of us get our priorities…I believ we’re going to have a great session.”

He added, “Our K-12 school system is doing a great job…The right thing to do is reward our teachers with a $2,500 pay raise.”


House, Senate leaders cautious about Scott’s $1.2 billion promise for schools

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott’s pitch Wednesday for $1.2 billion more for public schools didn’t draw resounding support from his fellow Republican leaders in the Legislature.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said they still want to see how Scott finds the extra cash in the state budget, before they said much about its prospects.

“We do have more revenue, but our budget surplus is breathing room,” Weatherford said. “It’s not enough to put your feet up on the couch.”

Gaetz also sounded cautious, as the two leaders follwed Scott at the Associated Press’ annual planning meeting at the state Capitol.

“We’ve come out of the locust years,” Gaetz said, relying on a biblical reference to frame the budget balancing facing lawmakers. “But I’m not sure we’re in the land of milk and honey.”

State economists say the improving economy has yielded an $828.5 million budget surplus — making this year the first since 2007 that lawmakers won’t face a shortfall during this spring’s session. But the extra cash can easily disappear, both Weatherford and Gaetz warned.

Weatherford said he’s eager to hear Scott’s full budget presentation Thursday.

“We’ll see tomorrow how he does that,” the speaker said.

Scott to propose a $1.2 billion boost for schools

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that he is proposing a $1.2 billion increase for Florida’s public schools, a boost that would hike per-pupil spending by about $400.

Scott’s proposal will be unveiled Thursday as part of his 2013-14 budget recommendation to the Legislature. More policy details also will be revealed then, showing more about how Scott found the cash for schools in a year that marks his first where he’s not staring at a budget shortfall.

“My top two priorities are jobs and education, and they are directly connected,” Scott said at the Associated Press’ annual planning meeting at the Florida Capitol.

Education under Scott has rollercoastered the past two years. Within months of his swearing in, Scott signed a budget that slashed public school spending by $1.3 billion — but last year he approved a $1 billion increase.

Scott said he is “doubling down” on the schools investment this year. His overall schools plan will include $480 million that will allow for $2,500 pay raises for Florida teachers and covers the 26,746 additional students who will fill Florida’s classrooms next
year at a cost of $172.9 million.

Scott’s proposal also would outstrip the $70-per-student increase sought by the state’s Board of Education. Scott said his per-pupil funding level will reach $6,800 — edging closer to the state’s record, $7,126 reached during the pre-recession 2006-07 school year.

“Investing in our teachers and our education system is our key to economic growth,” Scott said.

Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, also speaking at the AP session, said he would welcome the boost for schools. But he mocked Scott for having an “epiphany” on education that was driven largely by concern over his re-election campaign next year.

Smith said Scott’s action showed he was effectively saying, “I was wrong to starve education and starve government so much.”

Scott said he wants more cash for teacher training

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott continued his new-found focus on education Tuesday, announcing that he would seek $2 million from next year’s Legislature to finance a teacher training program.

The effort, which he said evolved from a weeklong “listening tour” he completed last month, would be a matching grant program designed to attract additional dollars from private companies, educational foundations and local school districts.

The Scott administration said that including the matching funds, the goal is to have as much as $6 million available for continuing teacher education.

“We’re acknowledging the importance of our teachers in this state,” Scott told reporters. “All of us know that in our childhood, teachers were the ones who helped us get ahead.”

Scott said the value of good teachers should be an easy sell to legislators and potential matching grant givers.

 ”They’re teaching and training the future of our state,” Scott said of those working in Florida’s school districts.

A spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said it was too early to react to the Republican governor’s idea, which at this point includes few specifics.

“We have to see what it includes, whether its aimed at some predetermined outcomes,” said Mark Pudlow of FEA. “With anything like this, the devil is in the details.”

Scott spoke Tuesday alongside his Governor’s Office desk, atop sits a small chalkboard which touts, “Over $1 billion in NEW education funding.” The motto represents the amount he and the Legislature increased public school dollars this fall.

Unmentioned, however, is the $1.3 billion cut in school funding that he signed into law last year. Also not addressed is a lawsuit now before the Florida Supreme Court challenging Scott and the Legislature for ordering public employees to contribute 3 percent of their pay to belong to the Florida Retirement System.

School district employees are the bulk of those in the FRS.

Scott, though, has lately gone out of his way to make peace with the education system.

Along with new training dollars, Scott is awaiting a report back this month from a panel of seven school superintendents charged with ferreting out red tape that inhibits classroom teachers. Scott also has echoed the frustration of many parents and educators by criticizing Florida’s dependence on testing as a means of evaluating students, instructors and schools.

Scott last month invited FEA leaders to the Governor’s Mansion for the first time since he took office in January 2011.. He emerged promising to at least maintain current school spending next year. He later suggested the funding level could be increased.


Scott and teachers union meet over grouper dinner — with a little history on the side

Friday, September 14th, 2012 by John Kennedy

History was the garnish to plates of grouper served Friday night at the Governor’s Mansion, when Republican Gov. Rick Scott had dinner with a half-dozen representatives of the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Both sides said the closed-door dinner meeting went well, being the first of its kind since Scott took office in January 2011. Florida Education Association President Andy Ford is expected to return for a meeting with Scott next week — this time a more traditional business huddle likely slated for Wednesday in the governor’s office, both sides said.

“I think we can always find opportunity to improve what’s on the books — especially with merit pay,” Ford said, adding, “Tonight was a good first step toward having some dialogue that probably should have happened a long time ago.”  

Scott railed against the teachers’ union during his election campaign two years ago, when the FEA was a heavy backer of Scott’s rival, vanquished Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink.

 The relationship didn’t get any warmer.

The first bill Scott signed into law as governor recast the way teachers were evaluated — making reviews more dependent on student performance. The legislation has been challenged by the union. The same session, Scott approved a measure that extracted 3 percent payments from public employees in the Florida Retirement System, the bulk of them teachers and other school board employees.

The first state budget Scott signed cut public school funding by $1.3 billion. The second spending plan restored $1 billion — but most school districts have eliminated scores of jobs.

Much of the discussion Friday pivoted around how the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) is deployed both for gauging students and teachers, along with Scott and the Republican-ruled Legislature’s push to expand virtual education. The possibility of private school vouchers returning — after they were ruled unconstitutional in 2006 by the Florida Supreme Court — wasn’t on the table, Scott said.

“I’m working on this job,” Scott said, when asked why it’s taken so long to meet with FEA representatives. “Remember, as a lawyer, you’re always practicing.”

The Friday night dinner capped a week in which Scott traveled the state on a “listening tour,” meeting with parents, teachers, school superintendents and principals to discuss how Florida can improve its education system.  He was in Boca Raton on Tuesday and plans to complete his tour next week in Fort Walton Beach.

“I believe parents ought to have choice, I believe that’s good for them,” Scott said. “I believe in the public school system. I grew up in the public school system. It was good for me. The teachers had a dramatic, positive impact on the my life….Is choice good? Yeah. But let’s make sure we do it the right way. Is competition good? Sure, but let’s make sure we do it the right way.”

After bidding goodnight to Scott at the mansion door, Ford acknowledged he was “shocked” by the reachout from the governor. But he said he welcomed the dialogue. Still, he told reporters, some issues are not up for discussion.

Vouchers? “Not for us. End of story,” Ford said.

Justices send school financing challenge back to trial court

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A lawsuit challenging whether Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature are meeting their constitutional duty to finance a high-quality public school system headed back to the trial court Tuesday after the state Supreme Court denied reviewing the case.

The lawsuit was  filed in 2009 in Leon County Circuit Court by Citizens for Strong Schools, a nonprofit organization.

The First District Court of  Appeal had narrowly ruled that the case could go forward in lower court. But Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, argued that the Supreme Court should review the decision — which justices denied Tuesday.

The case is widely seen as a key challenge to whether Florida schools are appropriately financed, based on a 1998 constitutional amendment approved overwhelmingly by voters and backed by the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Here are the Florida Supreme Court’s filings in the case:  

 The amendment demands a uniform system of free public schools by requiring the state make adequate provision for an efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system. The broad language of the amendment became the grounds for justices throwing out former Gov. Jeb Bush’s private school voucher program in 2006.

The high court’s 5-2 ruling said it is unconstitutional to use tax money to send students to private schools.


Pension battle now in hands of high court

Friday, September 7th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The battle over 3 percent payroll contributions demanded of public employees by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature in 2011 went Friday before the state Supreme Court, with a lawyer for workers saying it violates an almost 40-year pension fund guarantee.

About $2 billion is at stake — cash lawmakers expected to draw from the payments. It was used to plug holes in last year’s budget and this year’s spending plan, which took effect July 1.

 Lawmakers also could be forced to repay $786 million already collected from employees of  the state, school boards, counties, colleges, universities and special districts if justices agree with a lower court that found the payments unconstitutional.

Ron Meyer, attorney for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said much of the dispute turns on timing. The lower court found the move violated the constitution because it applied to all 623,000 employees in the Florida Retirement System. 

If lawmayers had sought the payments only from workers hired after the law took effect July 1 last year, they may have been on solid legal ground, Meyer conceded.

“You just can’t go back and change the deal midway,” Meyer said following arguments before the seven-member court.

Scott and lawmakers, however, say a 1981 court ruling involving the Florida Sheriffs Association, held that the Legislature could reduce the amount of benefits that would go to FRS members. Former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero argued for the state before his former colleagues.

Scott called the change “common-sense public pension reform.”

“The legal question in the case is straightforward,” Scott said. “The Legislature relied on and carefully followed a thirty-year-old Florida Supreme Court case, which held that the Legislature can change the public pension system on a going-forward basis.  We therefore expect the Supreme Court to follow its own prior decision.”


Teachers’ union, state in skirmish over merit pay bill

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012 by John Kennedy

A preliminary round in a larger fight over legislation that rewrote how teachers are paid and retained across Florida was waged Wednesday — with the state’s largest teachers’ union seeking to block a proposed Education Department rule  on evaluating educators.

The Florida Education Association argued before Administrative Law Judge John Vanlaningham that the state agency has exceeded its authority with how it wants school districts to evaluate teachers for merit pay.

In the complaint, the FEA and two teachers, Karen Peek and Beth Weatherstone, say the proposed “unlawfully sets a few DOE bureaucrats up to interpret, interpolate, and extrapolate the meaning of the extensive jargon it includes.”

State education officials defend the proposal as “not arbitrary or capricious.” They also say the proposed rule is written in the common language of the education community. It does not violate the statute created by the 2011 legislation, SB 736, they add.

The measure eliminating longtern contracts for new hires and linking teacher salaries to student performance was the first bill signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The governor, who had been opposed by the FEA in his 2010 campaign against Democrat Alex Sink, said the new law would help improve student and teacher performance, and help create jobs by making Florida more attractive to businesses.

Democrats condemned the legislation for tying teachers’ pay increases to how students do on standardized tests.

They warned it will require county school boards to divert dwindling school dollars to more testing in elective fields where such tests often are not currently administered.

Along with challenging the proposed rule for evaluating teachers, the FEA last September sued to have the new law thrown out as an unconstitutional restriction on the union’s right to collective bargaining.

The case possibly could go to trial this summer before Leon County Circuit Judge James Shelfer.


Scott signs $70 billion budget, with $142.7 million in vetoes

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Tuesday a $70 billion state budget, while vetoing $142.7 million in spending and warning universities against seeking 15 percent tuition hikes next fall.

The budget for the year beginning July 1 includes a $1 billion increase for Florida classrooms. Scott signed the budget at the ‘A’ -rated Cunningham Creek Elementary School in the St. Augustine-area to underscore his newfound commitment to public schools.

A year ago, Scott signed a budget which cut $1.3 billion from schools. But on Tuesday, Scott called education, “the lifeblood of our state.”

But Scott’s urging universities to rein-in spending may set him at odds with Florida’s 11 public universities, which face a $300 million reduction in state funding this year. Scott let stand a budget item that allows Florida’s 28 colleges to raise tuition by 5 percent this year, but suggested Tuesday that universities should go no higher.

The State University System’s Board of Governors will decide tuition rates in June.

The $142.7 million in vetoes is a sharp dropoff from last year, when Scott vetoed a record $615 million. A year ago, Scott clashed with lawmakers through most of the session. But this year, legislators aimed early on at the $1 billion boost for schools that he called for in releasing his budget recommendation in January.

“Over the last year I have traveled the state to hear from Floridians what issues they care about most,” Scott said Tuesday. “That’s why this budget should be known as an education budget. The two issues that Floridians care most about are jobs and education, and the two go hand-in-hand since a good education is critical to getting a good job.”

School officials say they welcome the $1  billion increase. But they acknowledge it doesn’t bring per-pupil funding back to levels of even two years ago. The state’s largest teachers’ union, which had supported Scott opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, in the 2010 governor’s race, was especially critical.

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said Scott and the Republican-led Legislature are still shorting schools, even with the new money.

“At the same time the governor and lawmakers doled out more tax giveaways for corporations, more money for unaccountable voucher schools and more support and autonomy to for-profit charter schools, our public schools are given a budget nowhere close to adequate and light years away from a true investment in our children,” Ford said.

Palm Beach County didn’t have too many favored projects in the budget. But Scott vetoed most Tuesday, including $250,000 to reimburse local law enforcement agencies and others for security costs related to a presidential debate this fall at Boca Raton’s Lynn University; $50,000 toward developing a master plan for the Glades’ Torry Island; and $1 million for water treatment work in the Glades area.

But Scott allowed $500,000 in state funds to go toward roadwork on Riviera Beach’s 13th Street, which local officials said was needed to help link the Port of Palm Beach with nearby industrial sites.


Scott’s budget-signing to focus on new school cash

Monday, April 16th, 2012 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign the 2012-13 state budget at noon, Tuesday at a public school near St. Augustine.

The $70 billion spending plan approved last month by lawmakers includes a $1 billion boost for Florida’s classroom, coming after a year in which schools absorbed a $1.3 billion reduction and per-pupil spending fell to its lowest level in six years.

Scott also will unveil budget vetoes, which he has said are likely to prove well below the record, $615 million total he eliminated from last year’s spending plan.

The budget-signing is scheduled for Cunningham Creek Elementary School, an ‘A” rated school in St. Johns County.

The school ceremony follows a pattern. Scott last week visited three schools touting the $1 billion increase, which bumps per-pupil spending up an average $150 statewide, or 2.4 percent.

But the average $6,375-per-student spending in the budget slated to take effect July 1 will be the second lowest level since 2005-06. It’s still well off the average $7,143-per-student Florida was spending in 2008 — when the recession tightened its grip on the state.

While school officials generally welcome the cash, the state’s largest teachers’ union ridiculed the approach by Scott and the Republican-ruled Legislature.

“Rick Scott and legislative leaders will bombard you with happy talk about their commitment to public education,” the Florida Education Association said in a statement. “But they haven’t even begun to clean up the mess they made last year.”


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